Linking Green Buildings, Productivity and the Bottom Line

Can promoting green initiatives and certifying the workplace as green increase productivity? And if so, what is the impact to the bottom line?

A review of scientific literature and studies indicate quite conclusively that the answer is yes on productivity, but the challenge is in quantifying those gains in relation to profit.

Let's first look at what is meant by a green workplace. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in a 2009 poll, "Green Initiatives, What has Changed in One Year," defined a green workplace as one that is environmentally sensitive, resource efficient and socially responsible. This definition can be viewed from the perspective of a corporate strategy, easily fitting under the concept of sustainability.

There are plenty of surveys linking corporate sustainability practices to employee engagement.

In a recent "LinkedHR: Green" on-line discussion, website manager Liz Pellet referenced a Harris poll that found that 33 percent of Americans would be more inclined to work for a green company compared to an organization that does not make a conscious effort to promote socially and environmentally friendly practices. She wrote, "There are a lot of benefits and measurable Return on Investment to going green and increased employee engagement is one of them."

To be more tactical, it is important to analyze the physical work environment. It helps to understand what goes into making a workplace or building green. A good approach is to look at the LEED system.

LEED is the international benchmark for buildings that are environmentally friendly and healthful. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, a LEED-Gold building has 50 percent less negative impact on the environment, and a LEED-Platinum building has at least 70 percent less negative impact than a conventional building.

Buildings that become LEED certified will typically have these features:

  • Advanced ventilating systems that increase air flow (decrease carbon dioxide levels and dilute contaminants) and maintain optimal temperatures.
  • Selection of building materials and furnishings that have low toxicity (prevent airborne chemical contaminants).
  • Elimination of sources of pollutants: paints, cleaning products, pest control, etc.
  • Increased use of daylighting (reduce energy, improve mood).
  • Use of high quality, energy efficient lighting (reduce glare, increase readability)
  • Promotion of wellness activities.

On the surface these green elements intuitively would be expected to contribute to productivity. However, as any HR professional in the service industry knows, objectively measuring productivity is difficult. White-collar jobs are knowledge intensive and qualitative, rather than task oriented which is easier to measure.  The output of knowledge work is difficult to quantify. How can you measure the value added by thinking through a particular project?

Many scientific studies have been conducted in various workplaces and educational facilities to gauge the impact on human performance as defined by reading speed and comprehension, learning, word memory, multiplication speed, signal recognition, time to respond to signals, and typing speed. Obviously, these tasks could all contribute to productivity.

Here are some of the findings:

  • There is a strong link between the quality of the indoor air and the incidence of allergy and asthma symptoms. This is significant as 20 percent of the U.S. population has environmental allergies and 6 percent have asthma.
  • Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, which indicate a lower rate of ventilation, can cause fatigue, headaches and increased risk of Sick Building Syndrome. Also, tests have shown poorer performance in computerized tests of reaction time.
  • Temperature matters. Performance increases with temperatures up to 60-72 F (21-22 C) and decreases with temps above 73-75 F (23-24 C). The highest productivity is at 71.6 F (22 C). (The optimal environment is one where the individual occupant can control the temperature.)
  • While studies of lighting with office workers has had mixed results, a study performed in a school showed improvements in standardized test of 16-26 percent in classrooms with the most day lighting or window area, respectively.
  • Health care maintenance has been shown to have a strong correlation to an employee's productivity level. Successful wellness programs in particular improve future productivity.

There are also surveys that address this topic, but being surveys, they have to be considered more subjective. Many of these tend to focus more on the productivity elements of absenteeism, turnover, retention and engagement.

Next Page: What surveys by HR experts and Deloitte found.